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What is my goal?

I’ve just finished a frustrating week banging my head against the wall dealing with a conservative Christian commenter (please remember that I write these posts about a week before they appear on the site – if grassrute has disappeared in this past week, this last sentence won’t make much sense). Despite taking careful pains to predict, explain away, and thereby defuse the predictable “rebuttals” to the discussion of privilege, this person decided to make the arguments anyway. So I responded to those, in spite of my irritation at having to repeat myself (in text… you could have just scrolled up to see why you were wrong!). And then through a combination of goalpost-shifting and selective interpretation of history (almost all of it demonstrably wrong), the fallacies stacked up apace.

It’s frustrating and emotionally draining to have to spend my free time (what little there is) refuting poor arguments. This is, however, my personal blog, and I feel that anyone who bothers to come here and comment deserves recognition for their efforts. My tone may become grumpy sometimes, but I get a giddy thrill every time someone new shows up here. After all, I’m just some asshole with a keyboard and a basic grasp of the English language – why should anyone read what I write? At the same time, the few conservative commenters who have shown up here at various points do irritate me – not because they disagree with me, but because (with few exceptions) their arguments are horrible. They only work if you are prepared to suspend history, psychology, sociology, and the basic rules of logic. I am not.

My colleagues over at Canadian Atheist (two of them in particular) would likely admonish me severely for being so unfriendly to someone with whom dialogue is possible. The problem with me, they’d say, is that I’m too willing to use mean language, which drives away those who disagree with me. This, they say, cements my position as an “angry atheist”, and deepens the stereotype. I’ve already explained why this line of reasoning is crap, so I won’t bother to do away with this argument here. However, it does raise an interesting question: do they think I write this stuff to convince people who disagree with me?

I’ve tried to make it clear from the outset that this blog exists for the sole purpose of throwing my ideas out there, ideas that are open for debate. This is not an attempt to find middle ground with people who disagree with me, or to coax opponents out by cooing sweetly to them in the hopes of using sugar and light to bring them over to my side. I wield a variety of rhetorical tools, but my go-to weapon of choice is (what I hope is) high-minded polemic. In addition to saying what I think, I do my best to show why I think it. This is done as much for me as it is for anyone who happens to stumble across the site – writing my thoughts down in a systematic manner helps me to clarify and shore up any inconsistencies in my beliefs.

My attempt is to persuade, undoubtedly; but I have no illusions that a deliberate, reasoned approach will bring over those who strongly disagree with my position. There are important differences in cognitive frameworks between someone like me and someone like grassrute – I start from a position of doubt and then apportion my belief in any idea to the level of evidence supporting it. If someone could demonstrate to me that a position I hold is either illogical or unsupported by evidence, I will abandon that position; it might take me a bit of time, but I can be convinced. The other cognitive framework is to start from a position of certainty and then look for things that confirm your a priori conclusions. A person operating within this mindset cannot be convinced or persuaded; she/he is convinced of her/his rectitude, and will always find a crevice to hide in when challenged. Attempting to use logic, persuasion, or even sugar and light to move a person like this out of her/his position is, in my opinion, rather a waste of time. No one-on-one discourse will do anything to change that person’s mind.

These two cognitive frameworks are philosophically opposed, but by no means does that mean that an individual is incapable of using both. There are any number of things that I believe in the absence of rigorous evidence, just as I’m sure there are some things that grassrute comes to believe based on facts and evidence. The difference is what happens when our backs are against the wall, so to speak. When my position is challenged, I will be persuaded by evidence (if not by asserted opinion and anecdote). The evidence has to be high quality, obviously – “something a guy told me once” is insufficient to put even a dent in my skepticism, but I can be – and have been – turned around in my stance on feminism, religion, race, pretty much everything I talk about on this blog. I recognize that, on the other hand, people who are not amenable to revising their views will not tolerate being turned around and will find any scrap of pseudo-logic to prop up a failed position. C’est la guerre.

I am not writing for grassrute. I am happy to discuss and clarify my position, using grassrute (or Scary Fundamentalist, or Natassia, or whoever shows up) as a whetstone, but I hold no hope of prevailing over people who fix their opinions first and then justify them later. Some of these stones are rather more dull than others. I am writing for myself primarily, and for those who haven’t given the issue a lot of concerted thought secondarily. I have heard from people – in person, by e-mail, in comments, on Facebook – that I am articulating arguments that they hadn’t really considered before, and their thinking has been subtly shifted. I am intensely gratified by these stories, as it means that I am at least partially successful. However, I am not aggrieved much by my dissenters (especially since they have, almost without exception, failed to articulate a clear and coherent position that isn’t trivially easy to disembowel). My frustration with them has more to do with the poverty of their argument, coupled with the magnitude of their certainty. I am not trying to “reach out” to people who don’t use logic – I am trying to stimulate thought among those of you who do.

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  1. says

    My colleagues over at Canadian Atheist (two of them in particular) would likely admonish me severely for being so unfriendly to someone with whom dialogue is possible.

    That’s the bullshit right there (and I’m referring to the other two, not you):

    How can dialogue be possible with someone who has basically dispensed with history, psychology, sociology, and the basic rules of logic?

    Yes, sure, when grassrute (et al) move their meatflaps, noise comes out, but being capable of a dialogue requires more than simply knowing how to make conversation.

  2. says

    Don’t let grassrute worry you. There’s only one word for people like him:

    Okay, okay, that was a little immature of me.

    …but really, he was a troll.

  3. says

    I think anyone who thinks dialogue is possible with internet trolls hasn’t actually debated internet trolls. I’m not overly convinced that any CA writers would admonish you for losing your temper at a tool, especially on your own blog, but I could be wrong.

  4. says

    In defense of grassrute, I don’t think the word ‘troll’ is particularly accurate. Misinformed most certainly, and not possessing a great deal of rhetorical skill, but there are trademark troll behaviours (posting simply for the purpose of causing controversy, for example) that he does not exhibit.

    He has been, so far, mostly earnest in his comments. We’re accustomed to debate online, he may not be.

  5. says

    There’s pearl clutching that happens every time someone says a naughty word. Anyone who actually thinks Richard Dawkins is unreasonable is going to think that I’m the devil incarnate.

  6. Scary Fundamentalist says

    Unfortunately, maintaining an attitude of intellectual superiority means that you will pass over some unusually effective whetstones where you least expect it. Humility, after all, is said by many men far wiser than I to be the prerequisite of knowledge and greatness.

    But alas, time is a limited quantity, so we all must set standards according to the time that can be allotted. Pick your battles.

  7. says

    Okay, read grassrute’s comments, then tell me about the dangers of an attitude of intellectual superiority. I don’t assume myself to be intellectually superior to everyone who disagrees with me, but sometimes it’s just a fact :P

    Once again though, I think it tends to come down to how much experience someone has with defending a position. You, for example, tend to have well-thought-out positions where even when I disagree (a.k.a. 99% of the time) I can see how you got to your position. Others who have showed up here have simply made assertions that are trivially easy to pick apart as being not even internally consistent. Those are the ones that frustrate me.

  8. Scary Fundamentalist says

    I think our recent agreement on freedom-of-expression has dropped our disagree-o-meter to about 97%, but I haven’t computed it in a while.

    But yes, without passing any judgment on grassrute, I can sympathize with your position. It’s like some crazed pinko who stopped by my site once in a while and screams “racist!” without any arguments. I only caution that it’s better to err on the side of patience, lest some of your underlying premises go unchallenged. In addition, having a ready mechanism by which opinions can be rejected unrefuted is all-too-tempting to be abused in those moments of intellectual laziness that strike us all.

  9. grassrute says

    I feel the need to clarify. I am certainly not posting for the purpose of causing controversy. (it’s just a by-product) Crommunist displays incredible observance in his comment “We’re accustomed to debate online, he may not be.”

    I am certainly new to the bloging world. Browsing through blogs, the Crommunist Manifesto is one of few that caught my eye. While many blogs are nothing more than mass postings of videos and previously published news articles, here is a blog with well thought out articles. Although Crommunist humbly states “I’m just some asshole with a keyboard and a basic grasp of the English language” the bit that you only have a basic grasp of the English language certainly isn’t accurate.

    Seeing articles I sharply disagreed with, I attempted my first post of opposition. Being in unfamiliar territory, I was quickly taken to task and turned the dialogue into a personal attack. I have apologized for that and am developing a better understanding of appropriate blog Etiquette.

    Furthermore, I think it wise for me to follow the advice of one who said “Pick your battles.” A fine example is the “privilege” exchange. Although I still feel the term “religious privilege” is largely a ploy to downplay religious persecution, I don’t think it’s the hill I want to die fighting on. In addition to this, I have recently observed fellow Christians who will fight to the death for their own freedom of speech, but have no problem when others are silenced. Maybe my eyes were subconsciously opened (not to ‘privilege’, but to a double standard that exists among some fellow Christians who are vocal) by the Manifesto.

    This is not the first time I have had my eyes opened to a problem I didn’t previously recognize. I don’t believe I fall into the category of those “who are not amenable to revising their views will not tolerate being turned around and will find any scrap of pseudo-logic to prop up a failed position.”

    ps – I do sense a little “academic privilege” in some of the comments:)

  10. says

    Fair enough. Since I wrote that, I have gotten an opportunity to get a better understanding of who you are and where you’re coming from. This post was written during the brouhaha that immediately followed the ‘privilege’ discussion. I was frustrated at the time, not only at you but at some people on another blog I write for. Singling you out was perhaps taking too strong a position, for which I apologize.

    However, the general point (removing you as a specific example) still stands – I am not writing to persuade those who strongly disagree with me so much as I am writing for those who have not considered the issues before (as well as for myself, obviously). I am indeed surprised and gratified that the stuff I wrote here has changed some of your positions, or at least opened you to a different line of thinking.

  11. katalina says

    I doubt that anyone is really “converted” to anything by blogs, but I find them stimulating in the differing perspectives and ideas they bring up. I enjoy Crommunist’s ideas and arguments because they ARE intellectually challenging, even for those of us who already agree with the majority of his positions.

    Also, Crommunist, you write about race in a way that really explores the issues differently than most people are willing to, in my opinion. I’m extremely interested in the concept of race and how to overcome racism and what it even really means for us as a culture (I’m American – in an interracial relationship). I really appreciate the skeptical position on all things, even those cultural or social, and I really enjoy your blog.

  12. says

    I agree with Katalina. As a white person, I try to challenge my perspective on race and discern where my privilege begins and where difference of opinion (or reality) ends, and that’s not always easy. Posting in blogs specifically about race often ends up making me feel kind of attacked, like I’m not in fact anti-racism, whereas I don’t often feel like I’m getting the kind of honest perspective that’s going to challenge my assumptions from another white person or from the mainstream news. I feel like the Crommmunist Manifesto gives me a “safe space” to talk about race and privilege where I can have my ideas challenged but not have my person attacked.

  13. says

    While it was not a specific goal of mine to create a ‘safe space’, I am glad you feel that this is one. I think that has more to do with the restraint of the commenters than it does with any editorial policy that I have. Comments go up (mostly) unedited, and I have never found it particularly useful to attack people for ignorance… honest ignorance at least.

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